The Liberators: Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell (Part 3 of a Series)

As we have seen, Frederick Douglass’ speeches about his experiences as a slave were so effective, he became the most well-known black man in the United States. This raised fears that his former master might try to kidnap him and drag him back into slavery. To foreclose that possibility, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland.

Douglass left Boston on August 16, 1845 for a 20-month tour, but it was not for pleasure. He was the honored guest of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. The British Parliament had previously outlawed slavery through gradual emancipation legislation, but at the time of Douglass’ visit, the British economy continued to import cotton and other commodities from the southern slaveholding states to fuel the British textile mills. The Societies were formed to pressure the British government to sponsor anti-slavery legislation for the empire and to abolish the practice worldwide by declaring all slave traders to be pirates.

Even before landing in Britain, Douglass was caught up in debate. Aboard the Cambria, scarcely out of port, he was encouraged by his fellow passengers to share his views as a black man on America’s “peculiar institution.” According to Douglass, this was an almost constant discussion throughout the voyage. As might be expected, passengers from slaveholding states took umbrage at many of his arguments. His opponents even went so far as to threaten violence against him until the captain intervened.

douglass ireland-1879 portrait

Frederick Douglass (circa 1879)

Douglass arrived in Liverpool on August 28th, and two days later he was in Celbridge (County Kildare), Ireland (14 miles west of Dublin). As he later wrote to William Lloyd Garrison:

One of the most pleasing features of my visit thus far has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me on account of my color. The change of circumstances in this is particularly striking. I go on stage coaches, omnibuses, steamboats, into the first [class] cabins, and in the first [class] public houses, without seeing the slightest manifestation of that hateful and vulgar feeling against me. I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man [emphases in original].

Among the friends he made on the trip was Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), famous among the Irish worldwide as “The Liberator,” the leader of the movement for Irish independence through political, non-violent means. While in Ireland, Douglass attended meetings of O’Connell’s Repeal Association and shared many of O’Connell’s views on the oppression of the Irish people. Speaking of the Irish, Douglass observed:

Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed, and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands.

douglass ireland-money

Republic of Ireland 20 Pound Note (1949?)

By the same token, O’Connell shared many of Douglass’ views of American slavery. At one meeting of the Repeal Association during his visit, O’Connell did not know Douglass was present when the latter overheard O’Connell say,

I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called, negro slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant.

Douglass was so enamored of his Irish experience that for a time he considered permanently relocating to the Emerald Isle. But his commitment to the abolitionist cause was so great, he could not resist the call to return to the New World struggle.

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 2, 1847-1854, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1, 1842-1852, ed. John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Laurence Fenton, Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell (Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2014).

Published in: on March 16, 2018 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Orator: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 2

After escaping from slavery and settling In New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass worked odd jobs and became active in the local abolitionist community. He attended various anti-slavery meetings and made his public speaking debut in Lynn, Massachusetts in October 1841, recounting his own experience as a slave.

His eloquence as a speaker and his poignant life experiences earned him the respect of fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who published the most influential anti-slavery newspaper of the day, The Liberator. Garrison’s admiration for the young Douglass was so great that he initially became a mentor to the young man, and Douglass became the leading agent of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He spoke at churches and in lecture halls throughout New England, New York State, and even Europe. Douglass’ eloquence was so profound that many doubted that he had ever been a slave. To quell these doubts, Douglass wrote the first of his three autobiographies, this one called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which became a best seller.


Engraved Portrait of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1855)

Douglass’ forceful testimony of his own experience in slavery raised fears among his friends that his former master might seek to reclaim him and drag him back into slavery. To ward off the threat, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland (of which experience we will hear more in a future post) in 1845. While he was gone, British and American abolitionists raised funds to pay Douglass’ last master, Thomas Auld, $1,250 to manumit Frederick Douglass, legally releasing him  from the yoke of slavery.

From the beginning of his public speaking career, Douglass’ rhetoric was supremely powerful and moving. His rhetoric is still effective, even more than 170 years later. In his maiden speech at Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass exposed the pain of enslaved people and the hypocrisy of slave owners:

“… But though they [abolitionists] can give you [slavery’s] history – though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience [emphasis in original]; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt those wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yes, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh. And yet, my master has the reputation of being a pious man and a good Christian. He was a class leader in the Methodist church. I have seen this pious class leader cross and tie the hands of one of his young female slaves and lash her on the bare skin and justify the deed by quotation from the Bible.”

The pain of Douglass’ story is even sharper when one realizes the female slave in question was his cousin Henny, who was disabled.


Corinthian Hall (1866), the site of many of Frederick Douglass’ Rochester speeches.
Built in 1849 and razed in 1929, it was located on Corinthian Street, behind the Reynolds Arcade.
It played host to balls, concerts, fairs, plays and lectures.

Although principally known as an anti-slavery speaker, Douglass did not limit himself to that topic. His first speech in Rochester, on March 5, 1848, was on the “Principles of Temperance Reform.” He was a popular and forceful advocate of temperance, women’s rights, and the opposition to capital punishment. There was no public issue of the day on which he did not bring the force of his words and personality to bear, including that of Irish independence.  We will hear more on the latter in our next posting.  [To Be Continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Man Without a Birthday: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 1

February is Black History Month, an unofficial holiday honoring the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States. The month-long celebration is rooted in an earlier celebration known as Black History Week, the first of which was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in mid-February 1926. The date chosen was based, in part, on the date of birth of Frederick Douglass. This is ironic since Douglass himself did not know when he was actually born. He said that he adopted February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, as his birthday because his mother had called him her “little valentine.”


38-year old Frederick Douglass (1856)

For those of us who have had yearly celebrations of our birth and are in contact with our parents, it is hard to realize the anguish that this ambiguity caused Douglass. One can hear the frustration, sarcasm, pain and anger in his third and final autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, when he discusses slaves’ uncertainty of their background, an uncertainty which he shared:

Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence in civilized society, sometimes designated as father, was literally unknown to slave law and to slave practice. I never met a slave in that part of the country who could tell me with any certainty how old he was. … Masters allowed no questions concerning their ages to be put to them by slaves. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of an impudent curiosity.

Even well into adulthood– as a man of 59 –Douglass continued to seek information about his background. Travelling to Talbot County, Maryland in 1877, he spoke to one of his former masters. The most Thomas Auld could tell him was that he was born in February 1818. No information was available as to the day or who his father was.

Just as he adopted a date of birth, Douglass adopted a new name as well. Douglass was not his birth name. He was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in Tuckahoe (Talbot County), Maryland, one of six children born to a slave woman, Harriett Bailey, and an unknown white man. Frederick Douglass never learned who his father was, although he assumed it was one of his mother’s owners (she had three). He grew up on the plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd, although Harriett and her children were actually owned by Lloyd’s plantation manager, Aaron Anthony. Separated from her child while Douglass was still an infant, Harriett was relocated (most likely sold) to another master, “Mr. Stewart,” 12 miles from the Lloyds and Anthonys. Douglass only saw her a handful of times thereafter, and always at night, since she had to return to the Stewart property by daybreak.

At the age of 8, Douglass was relocated to Baltimore, where he lived with Anthony’s daughter Lucretia, her husband Thomas Auld, and Auld’s parents, Hugh and Sophia Auld. The following year he returned to Lloyd’s plantation and was permanently separated from his mother and siblings, save for his sister Eliza. Later in 1827, he was sent back to Baltimore to live again with the Auld family, where he lived for six more years. During this time, he learned to read and write.


Frederick Douglass Memorial (1941) at its original location, St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. The statue was later moved to its present location, South Avenue at Highland Park.

Hired out as a laborer while in Baltimore, he made contact with the free black community in that city. In September 1838, using the papers of a free black sailor, he fled to New York City. It was there, among the abolitionist community, that he met and married his first wife, Anna Murray (1813? -August 4, 1882). Shortly thereafter, they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, he adopted the surname by which he would be known henceforth – Douglass — taking the name from an outlaw in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake” (1810), but adding an additional S.

[To be continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For More Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Daryl Michael Scott, “The History of Black History Month,” Black Past ( : accessed January 15, 2018). Dr. Scott is Professor of History at Howard University.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochester’s Daredevil: Sam Patch (1799-1829)

Readers of a certain age will remember Evel Knievel (1938-2007), known for various daredevil exploits (including an attempted jump over the Snake River Canyon). More recently, on June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and five years later, his wife Erendira dangled above Niagara Falls by her teeth, 300 feet above the water. Daredevils have always been among us, but only one American daredevil became a legend in Rochester and then the nation — Sam Patch.

Sam Patch was born on June 17, 1799 in Reading, Massachusetts. Raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he went to work in a local cotton mill at the age of 8. In his free time, he and his friends amused themselves by jumping into the water below the falls of the Blackstone River, a practice he continued into adulthood. Two decades later, he moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where in September 1827, he leaped the Passaic Falls, upstaging the celebration of an unpopular local businessman, Timothy Crane, who was dedicating a new pre-constructed bridge at the falls. He repeated the stunt on July 4, 1828 and again 15 days later.

Upon leaving Paterson, he began a career as a professional daredevil.  Having been invited by hoteliers in Niagara Falls, on October 7, 1829, he leaped 80 feet over the falls from a base on Goat Island. Ten days later, on October 17, 1829, he repeated the stunt, this time from a platform that raised the leap to 120 feet. On his way home from the Falls, he stopped in Rochester for his final jumps of the year.

sam patch- advert

Advertisement for Sam Patch’s last jump
(Published in Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829)

Both jumps were from the High Falls north of downtown. About 6,000 people watched as he jumped on November 6, 1829 from 100 feet above the river, preceded by his pet bear. Due to public interest, he announced that he would repeat the stunt one week later, on Friday November 13, 1829 at 2:00 PM from a stage which would raise the height to 125 feet. He also proclaimed that his pet bear would repeat the stunt one hour later. In front of a crowd of 10,000 people, Patch leaped from his platform, but lost his balance and landed sideways in the water, from which he never surfaced.

sam patch- parsons mill

Saw Mill of Thomas Parsons (1860?). Brown’s Island,
the site of Sam Patch’s leap from the High Falls into the Genesee River

Because his body was not immediately recovered, various legends grew up around Patch. Known as a hard drinker, it was believed by some that Patch had been drunk the day of the jump and that he had died as a result. Some believed that he had hidden behind the sheet of water of the High Falls and remained there until darkness fell, after which he made his escape. In fact, some were so sure he was alive that bets were placed that he would reappear before the start of the new year.

Such speculations came to an end on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1830, when his body was recovered from the Genesee River in Charlotte. His body was unrecognizable after months in the water, but several clues were used to identify the remains, including the black handkerchief he wore around his waist. Today his mortal remains are interred in Charlotte Cemetery, 28 River Street.

Sam Patch’s legend did not end with his death. Throughout the 19th century he was featured in tall tales, stage plays and children’s books. His name even became a polite epithet, “What the Sam Patch!” Today, his name adorns one of the river boats used for cruises on the Genesee.

sam patch - boat

Sam Patch river boat

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Primary Sources:

“Another Leap! Sam Patch Against the World!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, October 29, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Higher Yet! Sam’s Last Jump!” [advertisement], Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Shocking Event! Sam’s Last Jump!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph,” November 14, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 28, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, March 18, 1830, p. 2, col. 1.

Secondary Sources:

“Sam Patch,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 1184-1185.

Paul E. Johnson, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, “The Real Simon Pure Sam Patch,” Rochester History 52, no. 3 (Summer 1991).

Published in: on January 12, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: a New (mini-)Exhibit in Local History!


Yesterday, Mayor Lovely A. Warren and County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo proclaimed 2018 as “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” In honour of the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth, the City of Rochester and various local organizations and institutions will be offering a number of programs throughout the year to celebrate the life and legacy of the famed abolitionist, statesman and orator.

A few months ago, we in the Local History division began pondering how we might participate in this momentous anniversary. One of the ideas we came up with was to create a small exhibit on Douglass in conjunction with our current exhibit on Rochester’s bicentennials and centennials.

Seeking an original theme for the exhibit, we decided to focus on Frederick Douglass’ Rochester, highlighting the spaces and places that informed his life in the Flower City.

douglass exhibit- pamphlet

Douglass once wrote that he would always feel more at home in Rochester than anywhere else in the country, and his legacy is undoubtedly felt throughout the city in which resided for a quarter of a century.

His name adorns local institutions and sites such as the Frederick Douglass Community Library and Frederick Douglass Street, while artistic renderings of him span the city from the Wall Therapy mural at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Avenue D, to the Frederick Douglass Monument in the Highland Park Bowl.

These posthumous tributes to the civil rights activist coexist with the sites and spaces that shaped Douglass’ own life here.

Frederick Douglass resided in Rochester with his wife Anna and five children from 1847 to 1872. He moved here to establish his anti-slavery newspaper the North Star, which he published in the Talman Building on East Main Street.

His skills as an orator took him to renowned venues such as Corinthian Hall, where he delivered perhaps his most famous speech, ‘What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in 1852.

His work continued at home, where he wrote articles, coordinated Underground Railroad activities and sheltered escaped slaves. Only one of the three houses Douglass owned in Rochester (located on Hamilton Street) still stands today.

These are just some of the sites that patrons can learn about in the Local History Division’s new mini-exhibit: Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City.

As an added bonus, we have created a compendium exhibit pamphlet so that visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour of the stomping grounds of one of our most celebrated citizens.

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping His Tracks in Our City will run from January 11 -August 31, 2018 on the 2nd floor of the Rundel Library.


-Emily Morry


Published in: on January 5, 2018 at 5:43 pm  Comments (2)  

City of Refuge: The Beginning of Rochester’s Jewish Community

As this blog post is being written, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is just ending. Today, the Jewish community in Rochester comprises over 22,000 people, but the earliest immigrants to Rochester were Protestant Yankees. What do we know of the origins of Jewish life in Rochester?

The first known Jewish immigrant to pass through the area was Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), who came to Rochester in 1825 on his way to Grand Island, seeking to establish a community called Ararat, “a city of refuge for the Jews.”

The first permanent Jewish settler in Rochester is disputed. Some claim the first was Myer (or Meier) Greentree (1818-1890), who arrived in America in 1840, settling in Rochester between 1841 and 1843. Others claim the distinction for Joseph Katz (1814-1901), who was said to be here by 1834 (even though the Rochester city directories support Greentree’s claim over Katz’s).

In rapid succession, several other families settled here by the mid-1840s, including those of  brothers Joseph Wile (1812-1892) and Gabriel Wile (1820-1904), Asher Beir (1818-1893), Elias Ettenheimer (1819-1908), Sigmund Rosenberg (1825-1901), and Hirsh Britenstool (1814?-1896). Occupationally they were clothiers, laying the groundwork for Rochester’s role in the fashion industry in later decades. This small population of Jews would grow exponentially, to the point that by 1870, Jews comprised the fourth largest minority group in the city.

Halacha (Jewish law) specifies that ten adult men are necessary to form a Minyan (the quorum necessary for corporate worship). By 1848, that number had been exceeded. On 9 October 1848, a group of twelve men gathered to form a congregation, today known as B’rith Kodesh (“Holy Covenant”).


Temple B’rith Kodesh, Gibbs Street and Grove Place (ca. 1910)
Built at the site in 1894, the synagogue burned down in 1909 and was
rebuilt and rededicated the following year.

The congregation currently occupies a modern-style building on Elmwood Avenue in Brighton, but initially B’rith Kodesh did not have a permanent home. The members met in the home of Henry Levi, on North Clinton Avenue at Cumberland Street, later moving to the third floor of Stanwix Hall at 2 Front Street. In 1852, they leased an old Baptist chapel on St. Paul Street (near Andrews Street) for their purposes. Four years later, in 1856, they were financially secure enough to purchase, remodel, and move into the St. Paul Street structure. The building would remain their home for nearly 40 years, until the spring of 1894, when they moved into a newly erected building on Gibbs Street at Grove Place. The congregation relocated to the Brighton temple in 1962.


Max Landsberg, Senior Rabbi,
B’rith Kodesh, 1871-1915

How were the Jews of Rochester accepted in their new home? Anti-Semitism was not entirely unknown. This was demonstrated in a February 1860 civil case. A prominent attorney argued on behalf of the plaintiff that whereas the defendants were all Jews, and all the witnesses for the defense were Jews, the jury should be reminded that the tenets of the Jewish faith required them to “to get all they can from Gentiles, in any manner.” Needless to say, this lie raised the ire of the Jewish community. Even so, Jews generally were welcomed into Rochester’s business and political communities, such that the city became the “city of refuge for the Jews” that Noah had envisioned decades before.

-Christopher Brennan


For more information:

Philip S. Bernstein, “Judaism and the Jews in Rochester,” in Centennial History of Rochester, New York, ed. Edward R. Foreman (Rochester, New York : John P.Smith Co., 1934), 4:277-279.

Peter Eisenstadt, Affirming the Covenant: A History of Temple B’rith Kodesh, Rochester, New York, 1848-1998 (Syracuse, New York : Syracuse University Press, 1999).

“The Israelites Defended from Aspersion,” Union and Advertiser, February 15, 1860, p. 2, col. 2

Mary Posman, “Rochester, Refugees and the Jewish Community, 1930 to 1950,” Rochester History 74, no. 2 (Fall 2012).

Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community in Rochester, 1843-1925 (New York : Columbia University Press, 1954).



Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Time of the Season: Sibley’s Toyland

toyland-bears on bikes

When Rochesterians hear the word “Toyland,” they almost invariably think of Sibley’s.

Sibley’s wasn’t the first American store to create such a toy department, nor was it the only one in Rochester to have a floor by that name, but the erstwhile store’s elaborate toy section nevertheless became seemingly synonymous with the Christmas season for generations of area residents.

Department store pioneers such as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Siegel-Cooper in Chicago were among the first to cater to children’s Christmas whims by adding a toy department in the late 19th-century.

Taking a page from their books, Sibley, Lindsay and Curr converted its basement into a seasonal Toyland in 1898.

An advertisement for the new section boasted: “…here, descriptive powers fail to do justice; every Toy that’s made of wood, every Toy that’s made of iron, Games, Drums and musical Toys of every nature, all here for our little friends’ Christmas pleasure.”

The bounty of (mostly European-made) toys flooding the basement’s shelves weren’t the only thing attracting turn-of-the-century children, however. Sibley’s set up intricate mechanical displays featuring colorful fictional characters, each year attempting to outdo the previous year’s effort.

And of course, like other department stores, Sibley’s made sure to have a resident Santa Claus on site to carefully consider the wish lists of their kiddie customers.


Toyland’s entrance ca. 1940.

Toyland’s popularity-and no doubt its profitability-prompted Sibley’s to relocate the department to an expanded section on the fourth floor in the 1920s.

The onset of the Great Depression at decade’s end seemingly did not dampen spirits at the new Toyland. Rochester retailers were quick to note that such recessions scared consumers away from big purchases, but bore less impact on less expensive products, like toys.

A 1930 Democrat and Chronicle article on Toyland noted that Sibley’s’ Santa Claus “…is just as ruddy, his smile as sincere, his whiskers as spurious as ever. He doesn’t know a thing about depressions. And neither, for the matter of that, do the kids. Which is very much as it should be.”

Rather than fall short during the hard times of the 1930s, Sibley’s doubled down on its seasonal section. In 1935, the company followed the trend initiated by Gimbels’ in Philadelphia (and later popularized by Macy’s in New York City), and launched its own annual holiday parade to mark the grand opening of Toyland each year.

Prior to the parade, the balloons spent the night in Cobb’s Hill Park where they were inflated before making their debut along a route spanning from the corner of East Avenue and Culver Road to Main and Saint Paul.

By 1938, the parade counted 30 papier-mache figures and 20 giant balloons including a bug “as long as a trolley car” and a polka dot cow “so big it could use a bale of hay for a stick of chewing gum and then swallow it whole,” according to a D&C reporter.

In 1940, when the crowd for the popular parade was expected to reach 50,000 people, every single police officer in the city was put on special duty.

But while the barrage of balloons helped boost Sibley’s sales, its Toyland (like those across America) took a something of a hit during the war years.

Due to bans on the use of steel, rubber and other materials deemed vital to the war effort, the store experienced shortages of certain types of toys such as wagons and trucks.

Such toys that did enter the wartime market often showcased alternative materials. For instance, since the use of steel was limited to 7% of the gross weight of a toy, toy vehicle manufacturers almost exclusively used wood in their products, saving their steel allotment for wheel axles.

toyland- workshop

A North Pole scene at Sibley’s ca. 1940.

The post-war era witnessed changes of a different kind at Sibley’s.

As more Rochester residents relocated to the suburbs, retailers such as Sibley’s followed suit. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sibley’s added locations in Henrietta and Greece. Each in turn developed its own Toyland, and each featured its own Magic Corridor, the animated diorama marking the path to Santa Claus.

While these suburban forays offered customers added choice and convenience, they ultimately helped influence the demise of the downtown department store.

Santa seekers would make their last pilgrimages to the original Sibley’s Toyland in the late 1980s. The mainstay Main Street store closed its doors for good in 1990.

toyland- tree

-Emily Morry

Published in: on December 19, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  

No Selling Gunpowder by Candlelight: The Earliest Laws of Rochesterville

There are generally two types of laws: positive laws (those that seek to encourage the good in a society); and negative laws (those that seek to prevent the bad). Examples of the former are tax laws that encourage home ownership and donations to charity, while examples of the latter include prohibitions on drunk driving and drug use. Thus, one can tell a great deal about a society – its good and bad practices – by studying the laws it imposes.

How is this relevant to early Rochester? We forget how different early village life was from the present city we all know. Those differences are brought to mind by examining some of the activities prohibited in the earliest laws passed by the village trustees in 1817 and 1818:

  • No ball playing or games;
  • No firing of any gun, pistol, rocket or firework within 200 feet of any building;
  • No setting of any fire in the streets, alleys or backyards after sunset;
  • No horse racing;
  • No allowing of any animal to run at large (e.g., cows, horses, swine, sheep, etc.);
  • No animal may be slaughtered within 50 feet of the bridge; (i.e. the Main Street bridge)
  • No leaving dead animals or tainted meat on ground within one half mile of bridge;
  • No bathing (i.e., swimming) in the river between sunrise and 8:00 p.m.;
  • No selling of any liquor on Sundays;
  • No more than 6 pounds of gunpowder to be kept by anyone in the village;
  • No selling, dealing or weighing gunpowder by candlelight.

The rationale for some of these laws can be seen in some of the earliest positive regulations:

  • All fireplaces, ovens, chimneys and stove tops shall be kept clean and in good repair;
  • Each person to provide themselves one fire bucket;
  • Homes with more than four residents shall have two fire buckets, with their names painted upon them.

    Records of the Doings of the Trustees of the Village of Rochester  (Photo from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, R.M.S.C.)

    Penalties for violating these initial regulations varied from a minimum of 50 cents to a maximum of $5.00. This may not seem like much, but we must recall that the average laborer earned 50 cents a day or less; thus, the penalties ranged from a whole day’s wage to 10 days’ earnings.

    Why were the penalties so severe?

    We must remember that Rochesterville was a settlement cut out of the wilderness, much of it made out of wood. In the days before a professional fire department was established, a fire could only be fought by the affected family and their neighbors with fire buckets. Fire represented a potential loss of life, limb and savings for the individual, and it had the potential to spread–a risk the village was at pains to prevent. Hence the prohibition of any activity that might lead to fire, such as having open fires in the streets, using fireworks, and working with gunpowder near candles, etc. This is also why there laws in place to keep stoves and chimneys clean and in working order, and to encourage residents to have their own fire buckets handy.

    laws-fire buckets

    19th Century Fire Buckets
    (Printed in Rochester Herald, October 27, 1907. Photo from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection. R.M.S.C.)

    Another consideration was the protection of the village’s water supply. Today, Rochester’s drinking water is piped in from the Finger Lakes. In those days, the only source of water was the river. Anything that contaminated the river risked contaminating the community. Rochester was already concerned with natural diseases (e.g., typhoid and malaria). It did not wish to run the risk of man-made epidemics or an onslaught of pestilence.

    Then, of course there were the laws that facilitated communal life. Some, like the ban on ball playing and the prohibition of selling liquor on Sundays, were designed to uphold communal moral standards. Others, like the ban on letting animals go free (or the ban on horse racing) were designed to prevent the human residents from being trampled upon or interfered with by the cows, sheep, pigs and other livestock kept by the residents.

    These laws seem quaint to us now. Which of our laws and regulations will seem quaint to our descendants?


    Firemen with Equipment (1861?)

    -Christopher Brennan

Published in: on December 7, 2017 at 3:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Strange Case of Dr. Tumblety and Mr. Ripper, Part Two


“A Suspicious Character,” From the Illustrated London News, October 13, 1888.

As we saw in a recent post, one of the suspects behind the Jack the Ripper killings was a former Rochester resident.

Dr. Francis Tumblety’s career as a charlatan physician and his propensity for scandal took him from Rochester to various cities across the United States and Canada in the 19th century before he found himself peddling a pimple cure in England during the time of the infamous Whitechapel murders.

On November 7, 1888, London police picked up Tumblety on a “gross indecency” (most likely homosexual activity) charge, but he was kept in custody as a potential Ripper suspect after Scotland Yard deemed him to be a dangerous character.

He was nevertheless eventually freed on bail for the initial charge, and quickly absconded to Le Havre where he boarded a New York-bound ship under a false name.


Headline from the New York World, December 2, 1888.

When word of the arrest crossed the pond, newspapers in Rochester and beyond penned sensational pieces recollecting the quack doctor’s eccentric behaviours and the laundry list of petty crimes that had been attached to Tumblety’s name over the years.

Rochester residents who knew Tumblety as a young man also put in their two cents in the pages of the local press.

Captain W.C. Streeter, who used to see Tumblety hawking controversial literature to packet boat travelers on the Erie Canal, was in no way shocked by the accusations.

“I thought then that his mind had been affected by those books he sold, and am not at all surprised to hear his name mentioned in connection with the Whitechapel murders,” Streeter informed the Democrat & Chronicle in December 1888.

The same article included the impressions of erstwhile Rochester resident, Edward Haywood, who described the young Tumblety as an “ignorant…good-for-nothing boy” before declaring, “I should not be the least surprised if he turned out to be Jack the Ripper.”

The most damning testament to Tumblety’s (nefarious) character that surfaced in the wake of the Whitechapel news, came from a Civil War veteran by the name of Colonel C.A. Dunham. Dunham claimed that years before, he had attended a dinner party at Tumblety’s home in Washington, D.C., at which the doctor proudly displayed a collection of human uteruses in mason jars.

Dunham also revealed that Tumblety had told him a story that seemingly suggested the source of the doctor’s alleged antipathy towards women. According to the Colonel, Tumblety had fallen in love with an older woman when he was a young man. The pair married, but the relationship met an abrupt end after Tumblety discovered his wife working in a brothel.

Dunham’s recollections sounded a number of alarms to those seeking to link Tumblety to the Whitechapel murders. Jack the Ripper was a misogynist by all accounts and he chose prostitutes as his prey. He also disemboweled his victims, making Tumblety’s anatomical collection all the more curious.

Also curious was the fact that the London slayings ended after Tumblety left England.

So why did Francis Tumblety get off scot-free?

The doctor may have fit the bill in terms of motives and timing, but there was no actual hard evidence connecting Tumblety to the crimes. Moreover, Jack the Ripper’s profile suggested he was not a particularly large specimen of a man, unlike the physically imposing doctor.

Tumblety’s name continued to resurface in American headlines for months after the murders, but he all but disappeared from publications overseas. This was likely due in part to the fact that Scotland Yard did not wish to suffer further embarrassment for having let one of its prime suspects escape. They also had a roster of other potential criminal candidates to consider.

Chief Inspector John Littlechild, who headed the search for Ripper, nevertheless remained convinced that Tumblety was the culprit decades after the murders had taken place. A letter he penned in 1913 stating as much has served as the primary evidence driving Tumblety’s continued association with the killings among some Ripper researchers.


Riordan’s 2009 book is one of several works that have included Francis Tumblety as a prime suspect in the Whitechapel murders.

Other scholars are doubtful that Dr. Tumblety was anything more than an eccentric character with a penchant for petty crimes and controversy.

Many of Tumblety’s contemporaries felt the same. When asked if he thought the doctor was behind the Ripper slayings, a New York City detective familiar with Tumblety exclaimed, “Why he hasn’t the nerve of a chicken. He just had nerve enough to put some molasses and water together and label it a medicine—the biggest nerve being in the label-and sell it.”

-Emily Morry

Published in: on November 30, 2017 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Eliminating a Founder: the Origin of State Street

In 1800, three men came to western New York to review sites for the settlement that would become Rochester. The three included: Nathaniel Rochester (who would give his name to the new community); William Fitzhugh (for whom Rochester named one of the original thoroughfares, Fitzhugh Street); and Charles Carroll of Belle Vue (as he signed himself, November 7, 1767-October 28, 1823), for whom another of the original roads was named, Carroll Street. Today Carroll Street and Charles Carroll are gone and almost forgotten.

This is the story of why Carroll was written out of our history (and the later attempt to rectify the omission).


Charles Carroll of Belle Vue (1767-1823)
Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, December 27, 1981, p. 14

Charles Carroll of Belle Vue came from a large, prosperous, and respectable family. Many  members of the family were named “Charles,” which necessitated the use of modifiers to identify each. The American ancestor of the clan was Charles Carroll, “The Settler” (1660?-1 July 1720), who was Attorney General of the colony of Maryland. The Settler’s grandson, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, “The Signer” (September 19, 1737-November 14, 1832), was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and later a U.S. Senator.  Among other members of the extended clan were Daniel Carroll (July 22, 1730-May 7, 1796), a signer of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States. Daniel’s brother, John Carroll (January 8, 1735-December 3, 1815), was the first American Catholic bishop and later Archbishop of Baltimore.

Our Charles was born in Frederick County, Maryland. In 1789, he moved westward to Washington County, Maryland, where he built a large estate named Belle Vue near Hagerstown, Maryland. The 1803-1804 tax roll testifies to his wealth. The document affirms that he had 27 horses, 100 head of cattle, and 28 slaves. By the time he moved permanently to the Genesee Country in 1815, he reportedly had at least 40 slaves.

It was in Hagerstown that he made the acquaintance of both Nathaniel Rochester and William Fitzhugh. In 1807, he was elected a director of the Hagerstown Bank. Fitzhugh was another director, while Rochester was the founder of the firm and served as President. The three became close friends and shared an interest in land speculation, which led them to travel to various portions of the country seeking properties to acquire and develop.

When Nathaniel Rochester relocated to New York, he settled first in Dansville and then to the village named after him. Carroll moved to New York in 1815, settling in Groveland (Livingston County, near Geneseo). Despite the distance between them, Carroll and Rochester were in constant contact. As noted, the respect Rochester had for his partners can be seen by the fact that he named two of the original streets for them.

carroll-map 1827

Carroll Street and Fitzhugh Street can be seen in this 1827 map. NB: Buffalo Street is now West Main Street. (Elisha Johnson, directory map of the village of Rochester, 1827)

Today Carroll Street no longer exists. Why is that?

Nathaniel Rochester died on May 17, 1831. Four months later, on September 13, 1831, the Common Council voted to rename Carroll Street “State Street.” This was a result of a lawsuit the village had lost. The community had wanted a site for a public market and sought to obtain property owned by Charles Holker Carroll (Belle Vue’s son) for the purpose. A dispute arose over Holker’s continued use of the property he had sold to the town. When the matter couldn’t be resolved, Holker took the town to court. He won the case, and the Common Council, in a fit of pique, changed the name of the street, writing Holker’s father out of Rochester’s history.

One hundred and forty years later, the City Council of Rochester sought to rectify the omission. On July 10, 1973 the City Council passed another resolution that “the park facility known as Genesee Crossroads Park West be renamed ‘Charles Carroll Park’ in honor of Major Charles Carroll, one of the co-founders of the City of Rochester.”


Charles Carroll Park (1987)

-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on November 9, 2017 at 2:56 pm  Comments (2)